Blue (-Eyed) Devils?

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  April 26, 2006

These days, such prime-time cable-news hosts as the Fox News Channel’s Van Susteren, MSNBC’s Cosby, and CNN Headline News’s Nancy Grace have mined ratings success with a steady diet of crime and corpses, focusing on such subjects as the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, the Imette St. Guillen murder, and the Duke rape drama.

“Nancy Grace has kind of single-handedly lifted the ratings fortune of Headline News,” says Broadcasting & Cable editor in chief J. Max Robins. “They wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t keep working.”

MSNBC says Cosby’s show is up almost 10 percent compared with the same time period last year, with viewership spikes for such topics as the St. Guillen tragedy; the Holloway mystery; and the tale of Massachusetts resident Neil Entwistle, who is accused of murdering his wife and child. In her first year on the air at the network, Grace managed to increase the Headline News audience by an astronomical 180 percent.

All of which leads to this little memory test: what was the biggest story in America on September 10, 2001?

Answer: the burning question of whether Congressman Gary Condit had anything to do with the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy. It was a story driven by nonstop cable coverage and chatter.

After 9/11, the “War on Terror” logo replaced the red-hot whodunit on cable-news screens for quite some time. But today, Osama is still on the loose, we haven’t been attacked in more than four years, and cable news has once again discovered that crime pays.

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What’s in a Name?

In a case as culturally loaded as this one, language is crucial in cementing public perceptions about the veracity and character of the accuser. Court TV anchor Catherine Crier says that one of the things that makes the “race” and “class” issues in this story so prominent is the question dogging the alleged victim: “Is she a wanton woman?”

Writing for Arianna Huffington’s blog, legal analyst Karen Russell raised the key issue of how the media should describe the woman: “Victim? Accuser? Single mom? Exotic dancer? Part-time student? Stripper?”

It sure seems to make a difference.

Weighing in from his side of the class divide, Rush Limbaugh told his dittoheads that the Duke athletes were accused of raping some “hos.” (He later called that terminology a “terrible slip of the tongue.”)

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